Like a virgin . . . who won’t shut up

This is going to be a tough one. My assignment is to give some comment on Jeff Sharlet’s “here come the virgins” piece from the last issue of Rolling Stone, and I suddenly wish that magazine hadn’t taken this blog’s advice.

Sharlet’s is the sort of piece that everybody — and I mean everybody — will filter through the high-magnification lens of personal experience. As a result, anything I write is likely to be sifted for double entendres, prudery, libertinism, or hints at my own sex history.

Bother.

Well, I admit nothing and deny everything, which is both less and more than I can say for the subjects of Sharlet’s analysis.

At one point, our scribe finds himself in a bar, at a birthday party, surrounded by a bunch of twentysomething true-love-waits types. Sharlet wants to interview one of girls and he asks his guide, “How should I broach the subject?”

The response: “Just tell her you want to talk about her virginity.”

The whole article is an interesting mix of Johnny-on-the-spot reporting and theorizing about the deeper meaning of it all. Sharlet noticed that an awful lot of youngish Christians are rediscovering and reinventing old ideals of virginity and chastity, and so he decided to ask them about it.

The resulting Rolling Stone piece is a sort of answer, but the author gets a few things wrong and underplays some important elements of the story.

Wrong: Sharlet tries to draft James Dobson into the anti-masturbation movement when Dobson has clearly signaled that he is not onboard that train. And he uses fundamentalist as more of a catch-all veneer than a precise description. I mean, call me crazy [You're crazy -- ed.] but the interviewee who refuses to say that anal-sex-only enthusiasts aren’t virgins because he doesn’t want to get caught up in “legalism” . . . just cannot be a fundamentalist. Trust me on this.

Underplayed: Sharlet’s vision of why a new abstinence movement has sprouted is heavy on theological inquiry — decent theological inquiry, mind you — but light on more mundane explanations. I grew up in the Eighties and Nineties as part of the subculture that Sharlet likes to play anthropologist to; the true-love-waits thing seemed as much a response to the AIDS crisis and related spikes in STDs as a theological innovation.

Speaker Josh McDowell (pictured), in particular, used to scare the hell out of young audiences with the message that premarital sex could kill them or render them infertile. The newer crop of preachers and speakers has come up with different justifications, but the old anguished struggle is still there and the response to kids getting hot and bothered hasn’t changed all that much: This is bad for you; it could lead to physical or spiritual death, or both; abstain and trust in Jesus and your fellow believers to get you through.

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  • Mark

    What really confused and frustrated me (as a 21-year-old virgin myself) was Sharlet’s loosely connected argument that the real motivation for chaste young adults was power (political, even!), which seemed to be hastily cobbled together and tacked onto the end. “An empire of the personal as political”? Who did he talk with to find that? I didn’t find it anywhere else in the article, that’s for sure.

  • rfwarren

    Sombody want to explain to me the pre-occupation with all things sexual that appears to be uppermost in most Christian’s minds these days, especially religious and/or political conservatives. Aren’t there other issues in life that are equally as important if not more so?

  • http://www.ecben.net Will Linden

    “Desmond Morris says the Lepchas are obsessed with sex. (The Lepchas say Desmond Morris is obsessed with sex.) — John Sack, REPORT FROM PRACTICALLY NOWHERE

  • http://auspiciousdragon.com holmegm

    >Sombody want to explain to me the pre-occupation
    >with all things sexual that appears to be uppermost
    >in most Christian’s minds these days, especially
    >religious and/or political conservatives. Aren’t
    >there other issues in life that are equally as
    >important if not more so?

    If you crack open a Bible, you’ll find some concern with things sexual too. Whether it’s a “pre-occupation” is a judgement call …

  • Libertine

    Ah, Christian virgins. The tighter their belts, the more fun it is when I manage to take them off. And I do love a good challenge.

  • tmatt

    rfw:

    Several things. First of all, marriage is a sacrament and has been for the whole history of the ancient churches.

    Thus, it raises issues of both the Bible and tradition with a large T — Church Tradition. Thus, it is common to both the Prots and Ortho/Catholics.

    The post-Sex Rev period, especially post-Roe, has raised public square issues that directly overlap with core Christian doctrines. Thus, we are seeing strong tensions in issues of free speech, civil rights definitions, etc.

    It is, in short, hard for the tolerant to tolerate those they view as intolerant.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will Linden

    So, why does the culture keep pounding us with the messge that Sex is great, Sex is good, Sex is the answer to everything that is wrong with YOU; and that anyone who is not Getting It at every opportunity (or even regardless of opportunity) is somehow bad or “abnormal”, like those warped Christians?

  • Jeff Sharlet

    Thanks, Jeremy, for a thoughtful response. You’re right — I was too loose with James Dobson. So to speak.

    I think you’re right, too, to point to the spectre of AIDS as part of the story I could have spent more time on. Which makes it not just a little more complicated, but a lot more complicated: Why did some people flee sex and some embrace it? I genuinely don’t know.

    My biggest critique of the story, however, is my failure to draw the connection between the end of the Cold War and the rise of the abstinence movement, an idea Christianity Today editor Ted Olsen explores with some subtlety over at The Revealer, in the comments to Albert Mohler’s response to the piece.

    Another failure of the piece — while I’m in a groove — is the lack of historical context. I.e., this movement is not a return to a traditional system. Talk to any serious scholar of sex and religion. Nothing like this has ever existed. The book I recommend on the subject is Peter Brown’s The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity.

    Finally, to the poster above who takes issue with my suggestion that there’s a political element: No, I don’t think the subjects of my story want political power. But they are by their own admission part of a broad social movement that aims to change the way we live. That’s a political movement. And some activists, like Leslee Unruh of Abstinence Clearinghouse, are more than happy to exploit that movement for their own political gain. That doesn’t invalidate the sexual choices made by individuals, but it reveals another aspect to the shape and direction of the movement.

  • http://auspiciousdragon.com holmegm

    >Another failure of the piece — while I’m in a
    >groove — is the lack of historical context. I.e.,
    >this movement is not a return to a traditional
    >system. Talk to any serious scholar of sex and
    >religion. Nothing like this has ever existed.

    Except, say, among the Israelites? Fornication was forbidden by God. Fornication is sex outside of marriage. Sounds kinda similar … virginity until marriage … check.

  • Megan B.

    Sharlet is obviously referring to something far more than just whether a culture/religion teaches that people are or are not allowed to have sex outside of marriage. To take an obvious example, I don’t think anyone could claim that people in the Christian abstinence movement today have the same approach to sex as the also-theoretically-abstinent Victorians did. Same bottom line (fornication bad), very different discourse about sexuality.

    In other words, I hardly think the ancient Israelites wore masturbands.

  • http://blogs.salon.com/0003494/ Bartholomew

    holmegm: actually, the OT doesn’t completely forbid fornication, as long as the woman was outside the property network that attached her to a certain man or clan. Samson makes use of a prostitute before he hooks up with Delilah, and Tamar gets Judah into bed by pretending to be on the game. There’s a disapproval – prostitutes cannot give money to the Temple – but male virginity before marriage is not much of an issue. Plus we’ve got Ruth and Boaz (seemingly) getting it on before marriage.

    But seriously, you ought to re-read Jeff’s last paragraph to understand why this new movement is something different from what we’ve seen before.

  • http://benedictionblogson.com Bene Diction

    …Sharlet’s is the sort of piece that everybody — and I mean everybody — will filter through the high-magnification lens of personal experience. As a result, anything I write is likely to be sifted for double entendres, prudery, libertinism, or hints at my own sex history…

    Which, I think, is what makes it such an interesting piece.:^)

  • http://tim.2wgroup.com/blog/ Tim (Random Observations)

    Sombody want to explain to me the pre-occupation with all things sexual that appears to be uppermost in most Christian’s minds these days…

    Turn on a TV, watch it for a while, then ask why on earth Christians might be also “preoccupied” with sex.

    I don’t think Christians are especially preoccupied with sex when compared to the surrounding culture. It’s just that the media — Jeff being a case in point — finds sex and political power as the two most fascinating angles.

    Surely there’s a bit of projection going on there.

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